PHOENIX - State lawmakers are moving to more than double their living allowance - and do it in the way to avoid ever having to publicly vote on such a self-serving issue again.
A measure being crafted by a Southern Arizona legislator would scrap the current per diem payment of $35 a day for lawmakers living within 50 miles of the Capitol and $60 for those living farther away. Similar efforts over the past two decades have fallen short.
The newest incarnation would not set a new figure. Instead, it creates a formula tied to the allowance the federal government provides for travel for its employees.
Legislators from outside the Phoenix area would get the full rate, about $163 a day now. Those living closer to the Capitol would automatically be entitled to 60 percent of that figure, or about $98.
And they would get that seven days a week for every day the Legislature is in session, even though they usually meet only four days a week at the beginning of every year. Lawmakers also could get allowances for coming to the Capitol for special meetings or other official business.
Barring any last-minute hitches, the measure appears set to sail through the House. Rep. David Stevens, R-Sierra Vista, claims to already have 45 of the 60 House members, all of whom would be affected, signed on in support.
Stevens now is lining up votes among senators.
"It's not a salary increase," he said. Lawmakers would still make $24,000 a year in addition to the increased daily stipend. Voters have had to increase that annual pay multiple times since it was approved in 1998.
There is broad bipartisan consensus that legislators who have to find lodging in Phoenix during the session need more than the $60 a day.
"I think the biggest problem is the out-of-county people," said House Minority Leader Chad Campbell, D-Phoenix.
That still leaves the question of whether lawmakers who get to go home each night should get paid $98 a day for driving to their jobs.
Campbell said, personally, he does not need more than the current $35 a day for coming to the Capitol. "And I don't hear many complaints from in-county (lawmakers)."
Rep. Lela Alston, D-Phoenix, who has been in and out of the Legislature multiple times since 1977, said the cleaner way of dealing with the issue would be to increase the pay. That, however, requires voter approval. And recent proposals to boost it to $36,000 or even $30,000 have gone down to defeat.
"Our reputation is not sterling with the voters," Alston said. But she called the proposal "a legitimate request for the people who have to have homes in two locations."
Rep. John Allen, R-Scottsdale, agreed with Alston's assessment that the real issue is that $24,000 salary.
"You wish that we could convince the public that we're worth it," he said. But since that has not happened, Allen said there needs to be a recognition of the costs.
Not all Phoenix-area lawmakers agreed on the adequacy of their per diem.
Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Scottsdale, said some increase for local lawmakers is appropriate, though what Stevens is proposing is "a little bit higher than I would have suggested."
Kavanagh said it's also wrong to look at the allowance as simply paying local lawmakers to drive to the Capitol.
"Year round we have expenses," he said. "Our constituents expect us to go to their evening events, to go to their evening meetings, to communicate with them. … It's not cheap being a legislator, although the reimbursement unfortunately is cheap."
House Speaker Andy Tobin, R-Paulden, is one of the out-of-area legislators who would get the bigger hike. But while acknowledging the increasing costs of everything from rents to gasoline to himself and others, Tobin was less than sympathetic to the plan.
"I just question whether this is the right time to do that," he said, especially since there's no evidence that the current allowance is creating a problem.
"We didn't have any shortage of candidates running in November," Tobin said. "And everybody knew what the rules were."
Rep. Bruce Wheeler, D-Tucson, agreed, saying, "I would run again even if this didn't pass. But I think it's basically an issue of fairness."
Stevens said he wrote the bill as an all-or-nothing measure. That means a single vote to increase both the local and out-of-area allowances rather than letting legislators vote separately on the merits of each.
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